With the help of students and colleagues, I am trying to bring consistent, accurate recycling to the school where I teach. And I am attempting to teach students about recycling–by having them do it together.
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On January 1st of this year, recycling in Oregon changed. We had been shipping much of our recycling to China for years, expecting Chinese people to sort through our garbage and ready our waste for reuse.
But the Chinese government doesn’t want to play such a role in the world–who can blame them? So, in January, exports of waste to China all but ceased and local supermarkets stopped accepting “clamshells,” plastic bags, plastic lids, and so on. I called the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality–I called across the Columbia to the State of Washington too–and learned that there was nowhere in the Northwest where “#1” clamshells could be recycled. Was such a place being hurried into operation? No. Almost a year later, the situation appears unchanged.
Meanwhile, much our my school’s recycling was so contaminated, we were really not recycling much at all.
My first response was simply to recycle. I called around and found a few companies and programs where some types of plastic that we couldn’t easy recycle would be taken. The TREX decking company accepts “plastic film” meaning plastic shopping bags, Ziplocs, bubble wrap, and a few other #2 and #4 plastics (polyethylene). They even have a recycling contest for schools. There are dozens of pick-up spots in the area, including one just a mile or so up the road.
The Preserve company accepts “rigid” #5s. This is polypropylene. Like TREX, they have a number of drop-off spots, though fewer and largely limited to Whole Foods grocery stores.
A local company, Agilyx, collects polystyrene–#6s. It’s actually a lot of fun to drive down to their facility and dump several bags worth of styrofoam, drink lids, and take-out containers into a dumpster knowing that a few feet away it will be melted down or compacted and then sold for reuse. Very cool.
Over the summer, my Upper School Head kindly encouraged me to try to share my efforts in a way that might be educational. I’m lucky that I’ve had so much support. That said, I can’t control curriculum, so educating students about plastic pollution isn’t really an option. Neither is asking them to reflect on their experience recycling. I’m hoping this happens in the future. In the meantime …
HERE IS HOW IT WORKS, in a nutshell:
- every two weeks students, in their advisory groups of 10-15, spend a few minutes checking recycling bins in a classroom building or sorting recycling at our “center”;
- a Senior created an amazing app so students can check on their phones what can be recycled where at school;
- the staff empties the bins of “curbside recycling,” hopefully less contaminated by garbage, as usual;
- when bags of #5, #6, or plastic “film” are filled, they are tied up and marked;
- using the app Remind, I round up volunteers to drive the recycling to local collectors.
So far, I have heard little complaint from students. None actually.
Picture of recycling in Seatlle: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/29/climate/recycling-landfills-plastic-papers.html